Bluths, bullying and backlash: what the Jessica Walter interview shows us about how our culture deals with abusive behaviour.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent backlash that’s hit regarding an interview of the Arrested Development cast.  In the interview, Jessica Walter (who plays Lucille Bluth in the cult comedy) talks about how cast-mate Jeffrey Tambor verbally abused her on set. Despite the fact that Jessica is obviously distressed, many of the cast members present at the interview awkwardly addressed the issue, saying things like “all families have arguments” and “Difficult people are all part of the business”.  This interview struck a chord with me, and it’s only right now that I’ve been able to put my finger on the reason why.

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Whenever people ask why individuals who are abused, bullied or harassed don’t speak up about the way that they’re being treated, I’m going to refer them to this interview.  Because this interview perfectly illustrates one of the main reasons: because people who are being bullied or abused are afraid that those around them won’t take them seriously.  They’re fearful of being told that they’re overreacting or that their experiences will be swept aside.  When you listen to the audio of the interview, you can hear Jessica Walter’s voice has a tremor.  You can hear her crying.  It’s evident that she is hurt and distressed.  And still, her co-workers gloss over her experience and tell her that it’s all part of the job.

I’ve sat in that spot many times.  On numerous occasions I’ve worked with people who were physically and verbally aggressive.  And many times when I’ve raised my concerns about their behaviour and the fact that it made me uncomfortable or fearful, I was told “Well, that’s just their personality.  It’s not about you so just don’t take it to heart” or “Well, this job is stressful and that’s just how they react to stress”.  It’s so upsetting to work up that courage to speak up about the way you’re being treated only to be told to “get over it and don’t take it personally”.

Now, I think it’s really important to note a few facts about Jessica Walter’s background.  She is a seasoned, experienced actress in her seventies.  She’s articulate and intelligent.  And still, when she speaks up about her upsetting experience, her co-workers don’t take her seriously.  When a woman who has credibility and is able to express herself clearly says she’s been abused, and doesn’t garner any respect or kindness from her male co-workers, what message does that send to someone younger, less experienced, less able to advocate for themselves?  It says to them that if they speak up, they probably won’t be believed or treated with dignity or respect either.  Because hell, if a woman with sixty years experience in her job and a sharp mind and tongue isn’t taken seriously, well why would someone younger and greener be?

For a person who is being abused or bullied to call out the behaviour of their attacker takes huge strength and courage.  It’s an immensely frightening thing to say those words, even to someone you trust.  And when that effort is rewarded with the reaction that “we all have to deal with this” or “It’s just how that person is with everyone”, it makes the person speaking up feel even more isolated and helpless.

 

I feel like there’s a huge problem in our culture when it comes to dealing with abuse and harassment.  Often, much of the burden of dealing with bullying is placed on the victim, and a lot of blame is tossed their way if they don’t speak up.  And yet, when someone does call out unacceptable behaviour in a very public manner, they aren’t taken seriously or treated with care.  This interview is a snapshot of that dynamic playing out in real time, and it highlights how badly we need to examine how we treat people who vocalise their experiences with abuse and bullying.  We need to stop asking people to speak up and then turning them away when they do.  If people are going to report abuse and harassment, they need to be assured that their efforts will be met with respect and care, not blaming and shrugs.

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